(The mother-child relationship)
We all spring from our childhood, as Janosz Korczak once said, and we bear the traces of our family origins all our lives. In his time Freud showed extraordinary intuition when he started investigating in detail the impressions and experiences of the earliest period of infancy and concluded that the first year of life leaves an indelible mark on all subsequent development. But in fact we need to begin even earlier, in the womb. Of course, we know very little today about how the mother’s condition during pregnancy influences the development of the fetus, and even less about how this impacts the child’s later development into adulthood. Nevertheless, it’s not for nothing that experienced educators, and especially pediatricians and psychologists, ask the mother detailed questions about the course of the pregnancy, about how she felt about the child, whether the baby was expected and welcome, or unplanned and a nuisance which she’d somehow failed to avoid, about her moods during pregnancy (this is obviously closely connected with the previous question and also the dynamic of the parents’ relationship after the birth) and whether there were difficult experiences and conflicts while she was carrying the child.
Knowing what we do today, the influence of the mother’s condition on the child’s development and even on the formation of his future character and behaviour is no big mystery. It is well known that strong emotional experiences alter the biochemical and hormonal background of the mother’s organism and so directly influence the environment of the growing fetus. Stress hormones, production of which increases at times of emotional tension and conflict, influence the development of the child’s central nervous system and have a defining impact on his later mental stability and behavioural type. Consequently, so-called ‘old wives’ tales’, like an expectant mother should have as much contact with beautiful things as possible – the beauties of nature, beautiful art, being with pleasant, attractive people, are not entirely without foundation. Maybe this won’t lead to her having a beautiful baby (as folk wisdom would have us believe), but it can aid the child’s spiritual health, which is much more important.
During pregnancy parents must always remember that, once he is born, an infant can always be put somewhere else during an argument and they can have things out on their own, but an unborn child is invisibly and inevitably there while the parents argue and has no protection against the negative emotions they generate.
The act of birth does not bring an immediate severing of physiological ties with the mother. These are preserved during breast feeding, and a mother’s emotions will impact her baby, who will drink his milk with a corresponding dose of stress. In some cases where the emotions are strong enough, her milk can dry up altogether.
After birth, however, the physiological tie is not the only, nor possibly the most important connection. A psychological bond is established between mother and child, which steadily becomes more and more definitive. In the course of the first months the baby forms a picture of the world in which his mother plays a unique and decisive role. The baby turns to his mother for all his needs. He is entirely dependent on her and, consequently, dependent also on her emotional state. He very quickly learns to judge her moods. His mother’s smile of welcome or look of displeasure, her constant readiness to help him with pleasure and enthusiasm or her weariness and irritation at having to do things for him all the time, all this is noted by the baby and influences not only his immediate mood and behaviour, but also his further development. A mother’s gestures and intonation are of special significance at this time. In infancy, thinking in images forms earlier than thinking verbally and is shaped to a great extent by the influence of emotional contact with the parents.
In previous chapters I have tried to show that thinking in images is characterised first and foremost by polysemy, and that emotional contact is by its nature polysemantic. No matter how hard you try to explain rationally why you love one person and experience the opposite feeling towards another, your explanation will never appear sufficiently convincing or comprehensive, because it represents an attempt to translate a living and polysemantic emotion into the language of monosemantic concepts. Emotional relationships are polysemantic, and presence in their strong magnetic field ensures a child develops polysemantic thinking in images. In a few years (sometimes after many decades) this developed thinking in images will manifest itself in creativity and in a subtle system of psychological defence. The opposite is also true. The absence of this magnetic field, emotionally impoverished contacts between parents and child will sooner or later have an effect on a child’s ability to integrate with the world, his own ability to develop emotional ties, on his whole system
of thinking in images and his resistance to mental and psychosomatic illnesses.
I have already pointed out that one of the most common preconditions for the development of mental and psychosomatic disorders is alexithymia, i.e. the inability to define and express one’s own emotions, which is connected with deficient thinking in images. The most recent studies show that alexithymia forms in children who come from families with a poor emotional context. People who are used to not only controlling, but also systematically suppressing their own emotions will transfer this habit to their relationship with their own children, so causing irreparable damage to their health and development. No amount of formal care for a child’s physical well-being can compensate for a deficit in emotional contacts, which at the early stages of development are mainly non-verbal in character.
We should not, however, ignore verbal contact. There is a widely-held view that in the early stages of development speech intonation, especially the parents’, has much more meaning for a child than the content of the actual words, which are not understood. This may be so, but we should not forget that since a newborn child does not have the power of coherent speech, we are not in a position to judge to what extent and from what age a child can perceive the content of speech. Certain random observations suggest that this can take place quite early on and is fairly widespread. Let me give you one quite striking example. Some friends of mine had a little girl, and at some time when she was between 4 and 6 months they were worried about her feet, which seemed to be crooked. The parents would discuss how they looked from time to time as they dressed her. A month or so later the parents took the girl to a specialist, who assured them there was nothing wrong, and from then on the problem stopped being a topic of discussion. More than a year went by. The little girl began to walk and talk, and she began to play with dolls. At this point something unexpected happened. Every time the parents gave her a new doll, the girl would be very persistent and demand: “Straighten her legs!” She would even burst into tears. The parents made believe they were straightening out the doll’s legs, the little girl would calm down for a while, but when she started playing again with this doll or another one she would make the same demand: “Straighten her legs!” The parents were very surprised and called around friends and acquaintances asking whether they had the same experience with their children at that age. None of them had. Then one day the mother remembered their own worries about the daughter’s feet being crooked, and they began to suspect there was a connection between them discussing their worries and the little girl’s anxiety now. If this explanation is right (and none other springs to mind), then the level of understanding and capacity to retain information of a 6 months’ old infant are astonishing. After all, the parents didn’t ever say her legs needed straightening, they would talk about her legs looking crooked. The conclusion about the need for straightening was made by the little girl herself and stayed with her through the whole period of early development, a period filled with a surfeit of information of all kinds.
This means that everything we say in the presence of a 6 months’ old baby (and perhaps even a lot earlier), especially things that have high emotional content and relate to them directly, should be weighed and thought through from the point of view of possibly causing mental trauma. But that would never enter our heads! Adults, including parents, say the first thing that comes into their minds in front of a child, because they think he can’t understand what they’re saying. Then years later all sorts of complexes and phobias suddenly appear out of nowhere and cannot be shaken off. Freud stated, not without reason, that we carry all the causes of future inner conflicts from the first year of life. An argument between parents in front of a child, even if it happens in a very restrained way, can undermine for ever or for a long time a child’s feeling that the world is safe and secure.
We also need to take into account that in early infancy the child has no previous experience to show whether the situation is truly threatening and the conflict really serious, and no defence mechanisms to let him not perceive unpleasant information or reduce its significance to him personally. Nor does he yet have the capacity to respond to the threat with active behaviour. The foundations of active behaviour are being laid at precisely this age, and the character of the relationship between the parents is a very significant part of this process.